Life Lessons from a Prison Cell

1. Appreciating Simple Things in Life. I took a lot of things for granted. The basic concept of freedom for example. Just being able to have a walk in the park with my dog, sitting down at a cafe with some good friends, travel, taking a taxi. Even taking a dump in a nice, clean toilet. All these seemingly unimportant things suddenly became such a big deal when I was in jail.

2. Art of Negotiation. Being inside a Jakarta prison is a masterclass in negotiation. In the beginning, I was ruled by fear and was so desperate to find a way out. Everyone around me seemed to have a plan to get me out of jail at the soonest possible time. And of course I believed them. I paid a large sum of money to entertain high ranking police officers, lawyers, even the mafia. I soon realize that most of them are just big talkers. And everyone just wants to get a piece of the action (money). It soon came down to identifying who are the real movers and shakers and dealing with them directly instead of going through a host of middlemen. Engaging a lawyer is meaningless in Indonesia. The money to engage a lawyer is better spent paying off the prosecutors as well as the judges. And to negotiate well with them, one cannot exhibit any fear. I managed to strike a good deal because I was prepared at that point to just accept whatever punishment they wanted to give to me.

3. Making Real Friends. In prison, especially in Indonesia, everyone will want to be your friend if you have money. They will beg, cheat, lie, even steal from you when you are not careful. Some will pretend to be your friend but very soon, their motives and objectives become quite clear. It’s not easy to make real friends inside prison. I was thankful to be able to make a few good ones who till this day, has still remained close. These are people who will help even when they can gain nothing from it. They will protect you even when their own lives are at stake. These are people who will stop you from slipping down the slope of sin when everyone else is encouraging you. These are the people who will speak the truth to you. And I thank God for them.

4. Appreciating relationships. The hardest part to endure in a prison is really the loneliness. I learn to appreciate my girlfriend so much more during this time. The trips she made to the prison. The food she cooked for me. The fact that she had to keep being positive and smiling whenever she visited. I truly appreciated her strength and her love. I think it’s something I would never have seen had I not gone through prison.

5. Appreciating Sex. Not having sex for a whole eight months is almost unbearable for me. Even though with money, one can actually ‘order’ a prostitute from outside the prison walls to have a quickie inside the prison compound, I chose not to do it. I think prison makes me appreciate relationships and intimacy even more.

6. Understanding the world of injustice and corruption. It is very sad to see Indonesians being sent to jail because of the corrupt system. I consider myself lucky that I have some money to pay off the corrupt officials but most of the Indonesians are poor and they will never have such a chance. Do they deserve to go to prison? Some perhaps. But the majority of them are really thrown inside as mere numbers. In Indonesia, the police have a target to hit every month for drug offenders especially. The police bonus depends largely on whether they have met the target per month. I have a cellmate who was working as a waiter in a Karaoke Lounge in Jakarta. One night, a group of men booked one of the rooms and asked if he could bring them some ecstacy pills. He then went to ask his manager who then got him some to be delivered to the room. When the waiter delivered the pills, the group of men announced that they were actually policemen and arrested him on the spot. Not only that, they ‘confiscated the pills’ for their own consumption and they also took all the money on him (money collected from the customers that night). Such a story is commonplace inside the prison. And that guy would be spending at least 4-5 years in jail if he is not able to pay off the police, prosecutors or the judges.

7. Appreciating hygiene. A lot of these Indonesians have very little concept of proper hygiene. They spit all over the floors and most of them are coughing continuously throughout the day and night. Diseases spread quickly in the cells.

8. Money is King. You can do almost anything if you have the money in jail. You can add air-conditioning to your cell. You can arrange for a prostitute to visit. You can repaint the cell walls. You can even renovate and make the cell bigger. Hell you can even buy a day of freedom to go outside the prison (watched closely by prison officers of course). the system is so corrupt that most drug dealers continue to deal drugs behind the prison walls and it is in fact regarded as safer since the dealers are already in jail and they can easily pay off the prison officers to continue their business. A lot of people actually visit the dealers in prison to buy drugs from them. Laptops, TVs, DVD Players, Play stations are all allowed as long as you pay money for those items.

9. Big Powerful Druglords are Human too. I shared a cell with a guy called Tong who committed the biggest case of ecstacy smuggling in Asia. They were caught with almost 200,000 ecstacy pills. But he is truly one of the nicest guys around. He had a childlike wonder to learn about computers and would bug me every day to teach him. He would bring me around the different cells to introduce me to his friends. When I told him the cell was a bit too small for four people, he engaged a contractor to renovate and extend our cell. On numerous occasions, he helped me without asking for anything in return. He told me he wanted to start life afresh if he had a chance to leave prison. I really wish for him to have a chance to turn his life around. Thank you Tong for always having a ready smile and a helping hand.

10. Being more determined about Life. Before I was sent to prison, I was deliberating what I truly wanted to do with my life. I was earning pretty decent money but I guess I wasn’t truly satisfied. I spent a lot of time doing self-destructive things like drinking, drugs, parties, etc. Being in prison made me realize the importance of our lives. We only live once and we should not waste it. Live the best way we can every single day. Many people will not even have such a chance.